By Martin Steinberg
Everybody gets nosebleeds, sometimes at inconvenient moments.
That was the case for Joshua Bell.
At what was billed as “The Concert of a Lifetime,” the violin virtuoso had to deal with a bloody nose while addressing the audience and performing on Sunday.
The event was to celebrate the life and legacy of Herbert R. Axelrod, the classical-music patron who died in May, a month before his 90th birthday. Axelrod, a New Jersey philanthropist and amateur violinist who amassed a fortune in the pet-care business and as publisher of books on pets and tropical fish, was a collector of rare string instruments.
In 2003, he sold a collection of 30 “Golden Age” Italian instruments, supposedly worth $49 million, to the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra for about $15 million. The deal created financial problems for the orchestra after challenges were made about the authenticity of some of the instruments. The NJSO’s appraisers eventually determined the value at $15.3 million to $25.4 million. In 2007, the orchestra sold the collection, including Stradivari violins made in 1701 and 1710, to two investment bankers for $20 million and a share of the instruments’ future resale.
In an unrelated case, Axelrod was convicted in 2005 on tax fraud charges and was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
Before his legal woes and the tangled NJSO deal, Axelrod would help rising young musicians by allowing them to use some of his prized instruments on a longterm basis. Among the beneficiaries was Bell.
At the concert, Bell told the 400-member audience at the Axelrod Performing Arts Center in Deal, New Jersey, about his deep appreciation for Axelrod and his wife, Evelyn, according to a video of his comments shown by a concertgoer to this writer. “He and Evelyn gave us probably one of the top, my top three most memorable and wonderful days in my life,” Bell said through his sniffles.
In a recollection that was interrupted several times by Bell wiping his nose and dropping tissues on the stage, the 49-year-old violinist recalled that at age 12, his parents and sisters picked him up at summer camp at Meadowmount in upstate New York, but instead of returning home directly to Indiana, the family detoured to Deal to meet Axelrod.
Bell said he had never heard of Axelrod but was fascinated by him. Axelrod “loaded up” the siblings with books on musicians, fish, and animals, and “Oh, he gave me a violin to use,” Bell told the audience. It was a full-size Peresson. “A few years later, he gave me a Guarneri,” Bell said, interrupting his story by reaching for a tissue from a member of the audience. He said he used that fiddle for his Carnegie Hall debut.
The meeting “really was a turning point for me,” Bell said. “From that point on I really started taking an interest in becoming a musician for real.”
Bell, the headliner in a concert that also featured violinist Pamela Frank, cellist Peter Wiley, and other artists, later played Sarasate’s dazzling “Zigeunerwisen” (“Gypsy Airs”). During the soloist’s rests, he got more tissues and wiped his nose, according to the concertgoer, who requested anonymity.
“He was moving on the fast parts, like the usual, with his violin up and dancing,” the concertgoer said. “Whatever he played, he sounded like nothing was happening. He was uncomfortable, of course. I closed my eyes and you couldn’t tell.
“When he finished, everybody gave him a standing ovation and was admiring that he could just finish.”